Five Questions With … Dan Scarborough

Note: 2020-21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Havighurst Center.  One of the ways we will mark this occasion is through a regular “Five Questions With …” series, where we will check in with former colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, and students.  In this latest installment, Havighurst Center Director Stephen Norris asked Dan Scarborough five questions. Dr Scarborough was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center from 2013-15 and is now assistant professor of Russian history and religion at Nazarbayev University in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

1. You just submitted your first book, Russia’s Social Gospel: The Orthodox Pastoral Movement in Famine, War, and Revolution, for publication with the University of Wisconsin Press (congrats!). What is the main story you hope to tell in it and what scholarly interventions are you hoping to make?

My book examines the movement among Orthodox parish clergy to organize a grassroots response to the poverty and humanitarian disasters that afflicted the communities they served in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These efforts contributed to the development of a national-confessional identity that transcended the estate boundaries of late-Imperial Russian society. “The pastoral movement” also promoted a distinctive form of Orthodox Christian practice that focused on philanthropic mutual aid and conciliar decision-making. This form of Orthodoxy clashed with the rigid, bureaucratic structure of the Synodal Church hierarchy. This conflict culminated in an “ecclesiastical revolution” in 1917, during which councils of parish clergy and laity challenged the authority of their diocesan bishops. The result was not institutional collapse, but Church reform on a more conciliar model. The pastoral movement played an important role in this reform, and in the reemergence of the Russian patriarchate.  

2. You have spent a lot of time in Russia in the city of Tver, where you first served as a Peace Corps volunteer and later returned to conduct archival research (not to mention met your wife, a native of Tver). What are your favorite parts of the city? Its most interesting histories?

Medieval Tver was Moscow’s most serious rival for dominance over the Russian lands, until the latter managed to burn the city to the ground with the help of Khan Uzbeg. The most beautiful architecture in the city today dates back to the reign of Catherine the Great, including her putevoi dvorets on the banks of the Volga. I also became fascinated with the city’s local archive, which is vast, and reflects a vibrant religious, intellectual, and civically active society. It formed the basis for a great deal of my book. Tver is also the city where I married my wife, and where my son was born. 

Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky’s photograph of Tver, 1910.

3. It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since you finished your time as a postdoctoral scholar at the Center, but it has. What stands out from your time here at Miami?

Yes it is. Scott Kenworthy, who was one of my dissertation mentors, invited me to the Young Researchers Conference in 2012. I was very impressed by the Havighurst Center and by Miami University, so I applied for the fellowship, which I am very grateful to have received in 2013. The Havighurst Center is really a unique place. The faculty there are all very impressive scholars, and they bring a variety of intellectual and disciplinary perspectives to the table, so conversations are never one-sided. The Center also attracts many visitors from other institutions for talks and conferences, so I had the opportunity to meet with a wide variety of scholars during my fellowship.

I received such generous support for my career from my colleagues at the Havighurst Center and the Department of Comparative Religion during my time there. This included thoughtful criticism of my writing and advice for my research, publishing and job search strategies. I was particularly fortunate to know the brilliant Karen Dawisha, whose last book came out at the end of my fellowship. I believe that her advice for my job talk was instrumental in my successful application for my current position at Nazarbayev University. I am proud to call many of my Miami colleagues friends today, and I hope to see many of them again when in-person conferences become more feasible.

4. Tell us about life at Nazarbayev University (your classes, students) and life in Kazakhstan in general. How did the pandemic affect the country and university?

I really love my position at NU. It is great to live in the region that I am studying. It gives me access to archives, historical sites, and the opinions of regular Kazakhstanis about their history. My students make the position particularly rewarding. They are highly motivated and bring a unique perspective to my courses. For example, they notice details about the portrayal of Turkic and nomadic peoples in literary works such as The Lay of the Host of Igor and Chaadaev’s Philosophical Letters. My students’ family backgrounds also give them a tangible connection to the Soviet project. It is also interesting to teach Christian history to students who are predominantly Muslim. 

I have seen life in Kazakhstan change rapidly during my six years in the country. The city of Nur-Sultan has changed its name from Astana, and has grown up around us due to ambitious building projects. The Kazakh alphabet is in transition from Cyrillic to Latin, which makes it interesting to discuss the early 20th century transition from Arabic script with my students. The ongoing development of infrastructure is making many parts of the country more accessible to visitors. My colleagues and I are working on an electronic atlas of religious sites to encourage the development of tourism and the preservation of Kazakhstan’s multi-confessional heritage.

The pandemic has had tragic consequences for the country. The university has moved all courses online, conferences, and ceremonies online. NU has contributed to solutions through research as well as charitable campaigns to provide equipment and supplies to hospitals throughout Kazakhstan.

5. What research project (or projects) are you working on now?

I am currently writing an article on the origins of Orthodox sacred sites in Kazakhstan, which stemmed from my research for the electronic atlas. It explores the discourse between Muslims, Christians, and the Imperial Russian state in the creation of sacred space in 19th and 20th century Turkestan. I plan on pursuing this topic in greater depth once the pandemic subsides and I have the opportunity to work in the Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan in Tashkent.

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